Just a few days until the Eagles kick off the 2015 season for real. As is tradition, I will attempt to project the Eagles record. Before I get to this year, let’s take a quick review of the previous projections. Remember, the object of the game is to score points and to prevent them. Wins and losses are derived from how well the team does those two things. So rather than just throw a win total out there, I try to project the final Point Differential, then I use that number to back into an estimated win total. Here are my 2013 and 2014 projections:
I’m really happy with both results. Missing by 15 points over the course of a 16 game season is about as close as I could ever expect to get. Also of note: while I was generally on the mark, I slightly underestimated the team each time. It’s hardly a trend (just 2 seasons of data), but it’s something I’ll be watching for this year. If it happens again, perhaps I can start to adjust for a naturally pessimistic bias.
Let’s start on the points production side of the equation. First up, here are some stats from last year:
- The Eagles finished 13th in offensive DVOA from Football Outsiders. In 2013, they finished 3rd.
- The team scored 1.98 points per drive last year, 13th in the league.
- The Eagles scored 3.1 special teams points per game last season (Teamrankings.com). The second place team, Buffalo, scored just 1.3.
- The Eagles scored 1.8 defensive points per game.
As you can tell, the offense took big step back last year, but it was masked by excellent, and likely unrepeatable, performance by STs and the defense. Why was it so bad?
Two main reasons:
(1) Nick Foles only started 8 games, and when he did start he didn’t play nearly as well has he had in 2013.
(2) Turnovers. The Eagles had .174 turnovers per offensive drive last year, which was worst in the league. So on more than 1 out of every 6 offensive drives, the Eagles turned the ball over. It’s really hard to score when you forfeit that many possessions.
The good news is: there’s a new quarterback, and he has a long history of very low turnover rates. Moreover, turnovers themselves have little-to-no persistence from year to year.
Stay with me here for a few paragraphs, we need to get in the weeds a bit.
Last season, the league average for turnovers was 23. The Eagles had 36. So…if the Eagles revert to league average, that’s 13 extra possessions. If we also adjust on the takeaways side, we get to 9 extra possessions. Last year that would have resulted in 17.82 extra points for the team (using the average pts per drive), or 1.11 per game. If we assume a more efficient offense (better QB play almost certainly gets you there), it has an even bigger effect.
I detailed those numbers because we also have to go against the team. They simply will not score as often on D and STs as they did last year. A lot of writers have mentioned this, but not everyone has counterbalanced it with the TO reversion. If we assume the Eagles return to the middle of the pack for defensive scoring, that costs them .5 pts per game. On STs, doing the same costs the team a lot more, something around 2.5 points per game. In total, that’s 3 points per game that the team likely can’t count on this year. Note though, that the 3 point estimate is high. If the Defense and STs hadn’t scored the 11 touchdowns they did, the Eagles offense would have gained another 11 possessions. At last year’s average, that would have been worth 1.36 points per game. If we adjust for that, we get to 1.64 points per game from D and STs that the team can’t rely on.
Of course, we know from above that the expected giveaway reversion is worth an added 1.11 points per game!
That was a very long way of saying that the mean reversion on the TO side and the D/STs scoring side come close to balancing out, leaving a deficit of just 0.5 points per game.
We can certainly argue around the margins for the right way to correct for some of those things. My method is very back-of-the-envelope. But given the uncertainty and margin of error for any assumptions we make, I don’t think the result will change. So don’t worry so much about the D and STs not scoring this year. It means that, IF the Eagles turn the ball over at a more normal rate, then last year’s scoring rate wasn’t actually inflated by the D and STs.
That’s really important, because last year the team produced points at a rate of 29.6 per game. If we take out the 0.5 points per game from above, we get to 29.1 ppg. That was 28.8% better than the league average of 22. For reference, in 2013, the Eagles scored 27.6 per game, which was 18% better than league average.
Can you see where this is headed? If the Eagles natural scoring rate from last year was 28.8% better than average, than any improvement could lead to an extremely powerful offensive team.
Let’s take a look at the positions to see how things will shake out:
This is the big one, for obvious reasons. If Sam Bradford is healthy, he has a chance to duplicate Foles’ efficiency from 2013. Bradford has a very strong arm and, for his career, an interception rate of just 2.2%. But…we can’t overlook the fact that he’s played 49 games in the league, a big sample, and has been firmly mediocre. In particular, his career adjusted net yards per attempt, at 5.17, is really weak. I know a lot of people blame that on his lack of support, which is reasonable, but we shouldn’t just ignore it.
That said, I think Bradford is an excellent fit, and Chip’s offensive system has proven it’s ability to elevate QBs beyond their previous performance levels (see Mark Sanchez, or even better, buy the Eagles Almanac for an in depth look at the issue.) However, given Bradford’s career statistics, it seems foolish to expect 2013 Foles’-level performance. If healthy, though, I think he gets reasonably close.
Now a note about health. I have no idea if Bradford will stay healthy. I’ve heard the 12% re-injury rate number, so let’s go with that. But, we have to assume that there is a LARGE margin of error in that number. To be conservative, let’s just assume for a moment that the real ACL re-injury rate for Bradford is 20%. That’s really high, but it also means he’s got an 80% chance of NOT re-injuring the ACL. So in terms of expectations, it’s still pretty clear that he’s much more likely to make it through the season than to go down.
There are plenty of other injuries that could happen, but the season-ender is the one we need to worry about. Why? Because the Eagles aren’t winning a divisional playoff game with Sanchez at QB. Of course it COULD happen, but it’s really unlikely. So I’ll wrap up my comments on Bradford’s health like this:
- The Eagles need a healthy Bradford to have any hope in the playoffs.
- Stepping out of this analysis, my gut says the team wins 3 out of every 4 games Bradford plays and goes .500 in the rest. That means 8 starts gets you to 10-6 and a good chance at the playoffs.
Verdict: Big Improvement
I’m more worried about the OL than most people seem to be. Barbre and Gardner are both huge question marks at G. Fortunately, Guard is, relatively speaking, an inconsequential position. If the team has to have a weakness, I’m happy it’s at Guard. But…there’s a chance at least one of these two guys is terrible. I hope that’s not the case, and neither seemed like a massive problem in the preseason, but the risk is there for now.
Kelce is what he is, one of the most athletic Centers in the game and a rock in the middle.
Beyond that, depth is an issue and the unit is still heavily reliant on Jason Peters as it’s star. Lane Johnson seems primed for a big step forward, and that would go a long way to assuaging my concerns, but behind these guys there isn’t much to feel confident about. When you factor in the reliance on the running game, you can see why one or two injuries to this line could cause the whole season to unravel. As it stands, I’m optimistic, but if you’re looking for an underrated risk to the team, this is it.
The good news, in a strange way, is that last year the offensive line wasn’t great. From Football Outsiders, it ranked 29th in run blocking and 9th in pass protection. Since we’re just trying to adjust our performance expectations from last year, that means the line doesn’t need to be amazing to take a step forward. At the very least, repeating last year’s performance seems like a reasonable expectation.
Very little to say here. From a pure “on-the-field” basis, I really like essentially trading McCoy for Murray and Mathews. I’m ignoring the cap allocation aspects for now, because this analysis is only concerned with this season. At the very least, the M&M combo is more resilient to injury risk than McCoy, even with the injury history of both players.
I think the N/S running style from both guys is a great match for the team, and I expect big things from them (and Sproles, though I’m curious to see if Sproles’ usage pattern changes at all.)
I’m excited. Jordan Matthews looks like a potential star, and I’m excited that Chip Kelly liked Agholor enough to take him in the first round. I know that’s a strange way of thinking about it, and whether it was a smart pick is a different question. Losing Maclin hurts, but I think Matthews’ development can pick up of the slack. Expected overall performance probably declines a bit, if only because rookie WRs should always have low expectations, but I don’t see a major drop-off from last year.
Last note: depth is an issue here as well. If Matthews goes down, the WR corps suddenly looks pretty weak, barring a crazy debut from Agholor. Riley Cooper is a non-factor to me. I think he’s a pretty bad player that capitalized on one high-usage season, but he shouldn’t be expected to perform any worse than he did last year.
Verdict: Slight decline.
Summing up the offense:
Pulling it all together, and ignoring scenarios involving major injuries, I see a big improvement at QB coupled with a smaller improvement at RB and a slight decline at WR. Together that would seem to lead to a better offense than last year. Since last year’s rate was +28.8%, we’re left with a pretty aggressive base-case expectation. I’m setting it at +34%. I’m only pushing the upside case to +40%, because to go any higher would push us into serious outlier territory, which is a hard place to be for a prediction.
On the downside, I’m setting our expectation at +15%, which would be the worst points production rate thus far for Chip.
Now to point prevention. Here are some stats from last season:
- Last season, the Eagles’ defense ranked 10th by DVOA. The pass defense ranked 18th, the rush defense ranked 7th.
- The Eagles allowed 23.9 points per game, 17th in the league and 2% worse than average.
- The team allowed 1.85 points per drive, 15th in the league.
- The team allowed 29.34 yards per drive, 7th in the league.
There are no huge red flags for mean reversion on the defensive side from last year. The team had 16 fumble takeaways last year, against a league average of 9.5. Overall, the team had 28 takeaways versus a league average of 23.6. The fumble number is high, but the overall TO count was reasonable. We can adjust for the 4 extra turnovers (though there are reasons to believe the Eagles will force more turnovers than the average team) the same way we did for the offense. That gets us to an extra 7.4 points or .46 points per game. That pushes the defensive performance to 4.2% worse than average.
This might be the strongest unit on the team. Cox is at the beginning of what should be a long stretch of dominant play. Bennie Logan has developed into a better player than I (or anyone else) expected at NT, and Cedric Thornton is a very solid 3-4 D-E, especially against the run. The players haven’t changed, so our only question is whether we think the group will get better organically or get worse. I don’t see any reason they’d get worse. There’s a chance for continued development, though, so a small improvement is possible. A stronger LB corps. behind them should help as well.
This is a wildcard for me. Barwin has been tremendous and should continue at the same level. Graham has grown into his role, and seems ready to take another step forwards. Regardless, I think trading Cole out for Graham is a likely improvement just based on last year. In the middle is where things get tricky. Demeco Ryans’ role is unclear. I don’t expect much from him this year, and given his age (31) and the fact that he’s already played 126 games in the NFL (regular season), it’s fair to wonder if he’ll decline much more quickly than one might expect.
The good news is the team added Kiko Alonso, who has the potential to be a very good LB. As a rookie, he showed star potential. Therefore, the upside of a Kendricks/Alonso combo is huge. They’re both very fast, athletic LBs who could, if used correctly, form the most disruptive ILB duo in the league. Unfortunately, Alonso has some serious durability questions, and even if he’s healthy, it’s unclear if he’ll be able to regain the form he had his rookie year.
If healthy, there’s potential here for a big improvement, but the uncertainty gives me pause. Instead, I think a small step forward is a better expectation for this year. If Alonso stays healthy and works himself back into shape, though, next season could be dominant.
Depth is an issue, especially on the outside, but Barwin has been very durable, playing in every game over the past 4 seasons. Graham, similarly, has played in all 16 games for 3 seasons straight. I still have no idea how Vinny Curry will be used, but he’s a great piece to have, even if he just comes in pass-rushing situations.
Verdict: Slight improvement.
The Eagles’ biggest offseason move, to me, was signing Maxwell. And I have no idea how good he is. If he play’s like a true #1 CB, then it’s going to be hard for this unit not to improve from last year. If he turns out to be a guy who benefited from a great scheme and talent around him, though, things could get ugly. I’m guessing he’ll be solid, not great, which would still be an improvement over Cary Williams.
On the other side, it looks like Nolan Carroll is going to be the starter, and might move inside to the Nickel when the defense shifts to that formation. I’m not excited by Carroll, he’s just a guy. BUT, similar to several positions above, he doesn’t need to be great. Bradley Fletcher was not good last year. So just mediocre play from Carroll should help prevent a decline in performance from this unit. I think Carroll can be mediocre.
In the nickel package, Eric Rowe will have to play. That might be a problem. In any case, there’s no objective way to expect anything other than a step down from what Brandon Boykin provided last year. (I know I just said Carroll would rotate in, but I’m really talking about the 3 CB tandem here).
Depending on how often the team moves to that package, the improvement from Maxwell could be quickly drowned out if the rookie isn’t ready to contribute.
At Safety, Jenkins is solid. Thurmond has never played Safety before, but filling in for Nate Allen really should be that hard. He looked solid in preseason. I think it’s likely he turns out to be at least a small improvement over Nate Allen. Once again, depth is a big issue, but last year’s corps was such a mess that a big step down seems unlikely.
Verdict: Slight Improvement (Based almost entirely on Maxwell, so there’s a lot of risk in this particular assessment.)
Where does that get us?
It looks like the defense is likely to improve slightly. There is, without a doubt, more high level talent on defense this year than last (Alonso and Maxwell additions). How they’ll fit is anyone’s guess, and depth outside of the DL is an issue. I’m betting on the talent though.
Last year’s points allowance rate 4.2% worse than average (adjusted).
I’m setting our base case at league average. Note that by DVOA, I think the Eagles will finish in the top 10 on D again. Due to the pace of the game, though, that doesn’t map directly to points. On the upside, if Alonso is full-speed soon and Maxwell plays as well as his contract suggests he’s worth, 7.5% better than average is eminently reachable.
On the downside, I’m putting a floor at 10% worse than league average.
A note on Special Teams
STs performance has no persistence from year to year. That’s why I’ve adjusted the Eagles to league average. Of course, the unit was amazing last year, and it’s possible the extra attention or coaching the team devotes to STs has produced a sustainable advantage. I haven’t seen enough to assume that though, and since STs is generally a small part of the game with no persistence and a lot of variability, I just zero it out. Think of it as an error factor thrown onto the end of the final equation. If the Eagles come anywhere close to matching their STs performance from last year, the team could challenge for home-field advantage.
Pulling it All Together
So let’s combine our scenarios just as I did last year. Scoring was actually down overall last year, at 22.6 points per game per team (23.4 the year before). That went against the previous trend of 0.6 points per game annual inflation from before. For this year, I’m going to use 23 points per game as a projected average, and guess that last year’s decline did not represent a fundamental change in the game. Also note that I’m not trying to adjust for effects of the new extra point rules. I don’t think they’ll make a big difference this year (but hope I’m wrong about that).
Here they are:
Our base case gets us to an expected point differential of 125, which results in a win projection of 11 (10.98 to be exact), using Pythagorean wins and a 2.67 exponent.
Here’s a full scenario chart:
The average and median value is 10.5 wins.
So there you have it. Barring any major injuries to Bradford, Peters, Cox, and Maxwell, I project the Eagles to win 11 games. That SHOULD be good enough for the division crown, and it’s almost definitely good enough for a playoff spot.